Ministerial Changes.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 24th February 1942.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr James Griffiths Mr James Griffiths , Llanelly

I am sure that the House would desire me, in my first words in this Debate, to pay our collective tribute as a House of Commons to the Prime Minister for having responded to what was the undoubted demand of Parliament and of the nation. He has shown himself in this, as he has in other spheres, to be a Leader who understands this nation and gives them the lead when they need and desire it and when they demand it. I am sure that the House would desire me to give a cordial welcome to all the new men who have joined the Government. To each one of them we give our welcome and promise them our support in what is the common task of Parliament and of the nation. I would claim the indulgence of the House in thinking of those who have left the Government in the last few days, and perhaps the House will permit me, speaking from this Box for the people with whom I am politically associated, to single out one colleague in order to pay tribute to him. I refer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). We who are in the Labour movement know that he has given a lifetime of service to our great movement. Throughout his long years of service, there has been one characteristic that has shown itself, and still shows itself. Whatever be the cause—whether it be the cause of party movement, or the cause of the nation—that he serves, he serves it with complete self-effacement. I recall, as I am sure hon. Members will, the services he has rendered not only to the Government, but to our cause, and particularly do I remember when he, more than any other man in the Rouse, spoke the voice of Britain in those days of September, 1939. We shall go on regarding him in our own movement as one of the men we love and trust, and one who, we hope, will stay with us for many a day to serve us in the difficult times that lie ahead.

During the week-end we have had the announcement of the reconstruction of the Government. We have just had from the Prime Minister an analysis and description of the structure of the Government and the functions of the various Ministers. At this stage I do not propose to examine in any detail the proposals which the Prime Minister has made. I want to do what I think is our duty in this Debate, considering the altered circumstances; it is this: The House and the country asked for new men, but the House and the country did not ask for new men purely for the sake of getting new men They asked for new men because they believed that a new policy was wanted. Therefore, I believe the best service we can render to the Government, the nation, and our cause in this Debate is to examine the question of policy and to urge upon the reconstructed Government policies that we believe are essential for winning the war.

The events through which we have passed recently have caused grave disquiet in the country. That is natural. Defeats and setbacks must always cause disquiet, but if we are to assess correctly the way in which the nation has reacted to these events, we have to link them up with something else. I believe it is this: The disquiet in the nation caused by recent events was accentuated by the feeling, which is widespread in the country, that in recent months we have not been all out. We see smugness here and complacency there. We see a return to normality in our life, and that is repulsive to the best spirit of the nation, at a time when we are going through these great struggles. Small things often indicate very much bigger things behind them. I believe the best in this country—and it is the best in the country that will win the war—finds something repulsive and revolting—at a time when our men are giving their lives on land, in the air and on the sea—in some of the things that we see about us, small though they may be. The nation wants the Government to cut these things from our lives. They may be trivial things, but I beg the Government to remember that in times of crisis trivial things may have very great significance to the people. On the day when Singapore fell, there was greyhound racing—horse-racing for the wealthy, and greyhound racing for the poor. That is at a time when we are fighting a struggle for survival. We see these things around us everywhere. In this city, yesterday, there was the spectacle of 4,500 people watching two men slogging each other. These people went to this spectacle in hundreds of motor cars, using petrol at a time when, as the Prime Minister tells us, our shipping position gets more difficult from day to day. I speak here as a representative of the working class, as a workman. I resent the suggestion that workmen need circuses to enable them to do their best for the nation. That is an insult. The people of this country will respond to calls for service, provided that the calls are made to everyone and that the service and sacrifice come from everyone in equal parts.

Having begun with those remarks, I want now to say, on behalf of those with whom I am associated, that we desire that there shall be an examination of policy in several directions by the Government. We propose to put these matters before the Government in the confident belief that they will be given the consideration which they deserve. I want, first, to refer to the recent military events. I shall not do so in detail, because I am not competent to do that, but there are certain things which emerge from them that I want to put to the Government in the form of questions. They are questions that are being asked in the House and in the country, and it is the duty of the Government to answer them. This is the first question: Is the co-ordination of our three Fighting Services what it should be? The impression is held very generally that this co-ordination is not what it should be. In these days, if we are to wage this conflict, if we are to conduct operations successfully, whether they he operations of attack or of defence, it is essential, in modern war, that there must be a thinking-out and a planning-out of all operations by all three Services, not in separate compartments, but as one. The question that is asked is whether in cur country, in our structure, in our machinery for dealing with defence, there is still too much departmentalism and not enough co-ordination.

The second question concerns the Air Ministry. Whenever we refer to the Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force, we do so with gratitude in our hearts for the gallantry of the men in the Royal Air Force, whom we can never praise too much. That gallantry was again exhibited in the conduct of those brave men who flew to their certain death recently. But we have not only to express that gratitude; we have an obligation, and that obligation is not to trade upon the gallantry of these men. The question is asked with great insistence whether the policy pursued by the central control of the Air Ministry is adequate to the occasion, and whether the structure and the building-up of the Royal Air Force are on lines that conform with the needs evidenced by recent operations. I hope that at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way hon. Members will be able to have a discussion on that point.

The third question that is being asked with greater insistence every day is this: The Prime Minister has asked us, rightly, not to discuss in any great detail the events at Singapore. because we have not vet the information. But there is one problem of a general kind which emerges clearly already, and in connection with which I think we need not wait for further reports. It is this: Is our Army being trained in the right way for modern operations? I see the Army in different parts of the country, and I form the conclusion that the training of the Army is still based upon the idea that it will be used much as armies were used in the war of 1914–1918. Training is of a mass kind, drilling, marching, saluting, and getting men into the physical condition to endure and into a frame of mind to obey. The question which arises, if we are to win the kind of battles which we have seen in Malaya and in Libya, and wherever else they may take place, is whether success does not depend on blind obedience, but upon initiative. This question was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) last week, and I should like to ask it again to-day: Are we really training our Army in initiative? I beg the House to remember that the millions of young men we have to-day are not the soldiers of 185o and 1860, but are intelligent men with brains and with initiative. They are often bored stiff, and they are bored stiff because their qualities are not invoked in their training. I urge the Government to reconsider the whole problem of the training of the Army, with particular need for developing initiative, not merely moulding men into a part of a great machine.

There are one or two points which we wish to urge on the Government from the standpoint of policy, which have also emerged quite clearly from recent events. I hope that hon. Members have read the article which appeared in the "Times" newspaper and in the "Manchester Guardian" last week, which, I think, deserves to be our text in this Debate. I wish to quote these words because I believe they need stating in this House and that attention should be given to their implications. The article refers to Malaya and to the events which took place there, and particularly to the attitude of the people resident in that part of the world. "The Government"—that is, our Government; it is about us the writer is speaking, of the British Commonwealth and the British nation— The Government have no roots in the life of the people of the country. That is really a terrible indictment, that we have been there for generations, and yet these generations have not given us any real roots in the life of the people of the country. If we are to wage this war successfully, the only way in which that can be done is to make it abundantly clear, in what we say and in what we do, that this war is not a war for Imperial might and dominion, but a war for the cause of free peoples everywhere. It is because we fail to do that, that in Malaya and in other places we fail to mobilise the support of the people behind us. Malaya has gone, but there are other places where the same policy has been pursued, and I believe that I am speaking not only for my friends, but for the vast majority of the country and the vast majority of the House, when I say that it is the duty of the Government to learn the politicial lessons of Malaya while there is still time, and to apply, them.

I was very glad to hear the Prime Minister announce to-day that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek has been invited to nominate a representative on the Joint Pacific Council. A glance at the map is enough for any layman to see that in this battle for the Pacific, and in all that it means, the Chinese people, under their leader, have forces of enormous importance. What the Prime Minister has said to-day has, to a large extent, reassured us, but I wish to urge upon the Government as strongly as I can the need for the closest possible co-operation between us and the people of China. We also hope that the relationship between ourselves and Russia will become closer and closer as the days go by, and that efforts will be made on both sides to clear away any misunderstandings which may exist, and which may stand in the way of full 100 per cent. co-operation.

Surely this is a time to make a fresh approach to India. There are 300,000,000 people in India. Have our Government taken roots in India, and are the roots in the lives of the people? Does not Malaya show quite clearly that if the Government have no roots in the life of the people you cannot wage a successful war? I urge upon the Government new, fresh and urgent consideration of the Indian problems, and a new approach, so that India can enter as a real partner, feeling she is free and co-operating with us. I do not believe that in any other way she can play her part in this war, which is necessary if we are to succeed.

I wish to say a word or two about a front to which we always come hack in our Debates, and that is, the home front. The only experience we have upon which we can try to judge and estimate the policies we are pursuing in this war, is that of the last war. I know that comparisons can be odious and that parallels are often misleading, but there is one thing in the last war which is of supreme importance. The Prime Minister stated to-day that the last war ended suddenly. It ended suddenly and unexpectedly for the Government, when it still seemed that millions of men, in the two armies which were facing each other were equally strong. Suddenly there was a snap, but the snap did not come in Flanders, but in Berlin and Hamburg; the snap was on the home front, among the people in their homes. That is the lesson of 1914–18. We must at all times guard the home front. I wish to refer to one or two points in relation to the home front. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss details of our production, output and war effort in all their phases and aspects. The Prime Minister has confirmed, in the statement he has made to-day, that recent events have made it more urgent than ever that there shall be in this country the maximum possible production. I think that it will be generally accepted, and I do not believe the Government will dispute it, that we are at the present falling far short of the 100 per cent. effort which is needed in this country.

We are told that it may be untrue and that these may be isolated instances. That is given as the answer to our questions, but there is an accumulation of evidence from representatives of employers, from the Trades Union Congress, from workers' organisations and from our own personal experience that things are far from being well and that we are not anywhere near ion per cent. production, and that a big new effort is required if we are to secure it. We gather that there is to be new central machinery and a new Minister of Production. I now indicate quite clearly to the new Leader of the House, whom we are glad to see in his place, that we shall shortly want a Debate on production. Meantime I wish to urge one or two considerations which have been urged before, but this is a good opportunity to emphasise them and to urge them freshly on the Government. There is among trade unionists a general conviction that the system of control is wrong and is holding up production, and there is a general conviction that many of the men who are in control are working at their jobs with divided minds and divided allegiances. They are trying to think, at one and the same time, first of the needs of the nation now and, secondly, of the interest of their firms at the end of the war, and therefore control has become a stranglehold. We had an example the other day in the completely inadequate reply of the Minister of Supply to the short Debate when the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Parker) raised the question of the control of rubber. I urge upon the Government a reconsideration of the whole problem of control, because there is a general deeply felt conviction that these men are, perhaps unconsciously, but certainly in effect, holding up war production, because they have to think half of the time of their other allegiances beside their allegiance to the nation.

Secondly, there is still a feeling in the country that the Government, to which we have given our property and our persons, though using its power over our persons very fully, is still afraid to use it over property. I wish to urge again that certain basic industries should be taken over. We have promised that we will place proposals before the Government, and they have promised to consider them on their merits. We put them forward in the belief that the job cannot be done in any other way. May I cite the example that I know best—the mining industry? It is not doing its job, it is not producing all that is required, first because it is not an industry but a collection of units. It never was an industry. We believe that, if the mining industry is to do its job well, it must be unified into one industry, organised as one unit. How can that be done with due regard to the safety of the nation? How can it be unified except as a public service under national ownership and control? There are other industries in which we put forward the same consideration. Is there a Member in the House who will say that the mining industry is well organised for the task it has to undertake? In addition to the ground of machinery, there is another ground that we cannot neglect. In the mining, as in many other industries, there is something that has to be cut out if we are to do our best. Part of the leadership required in these days is to cut these things out. The thing that rankles in the mining industry is the memory of the last 20 years. I believe that the Government would start a new chapter which would have immense psychological repercussions among the men if they took over this industry and others of the kind. We believe that in each pit, in each factory and each workshop the nation is neglecting to use something which could be of enormous value to it, and that is the skill and experience of the workmen in each place of work. In all these industries there is an accumulation of experience and skill which ought to be harnessed on to the management.

I believe that we have got to end the reign of feudalism in industry and bring the men into closer partnership. They are willing and anxious to have it. Here are honest, sincere working men, supporters of the national war effort, anxious to get on with the job, who believe they could contribute something towards efficient production if they were brought into consultation. What right has anyone to turn them down? If it is true that they can contribute towards collective management something which will increase our productive effort, is that to be turned down in order to maintain the system of management that we had before the war? That would be a sacrifice of the national interest to a tiny vested interest, and I hope the Government will not stand for it.

There is a further point on production which I urge, in the hope that it will be considered. I have talked with employers of labour in South Wales who contrast what happens now with what happened in the last war. They say that up to now in this war there has been no real pressure to mobilise the whole of their services. There are thousands of small workshops and factories all over the country. They have gained the impression from their experience that they have no real place of their own in the scheme of production. Here at headquarters, in the great Supply Ministries, no one need enter unless he is a representative of a big firm who can talk in big figures, and these smaller units are dependent upon whatever crumbs may fall from the contracts of the big people. They say that when the Ministry of Munitions was set up in the last war they were called together and told this: "Individually you cannot do much; you are small engineering shops employing 50, 60 or 100 people; but get together, form yourselves into groups, pool your resources, your plant and your skilled labour, and do a job of work in unison." These small firms said that in that way they made a substantial contribution towards war production. Nothing of that kind is taking place now, and they are not doing anything like the work which they did in the third year of the last war.

Let me say this final word: The Prime Minister has asked us all not to say any word or to do anything which would break the present national unity. In that view I share, but let me say this to the Government. On the fall of France and at the time of Dunkirk our people responded to the call. Danger was imminent, the peril was at our doors and there was a marvellous response. Also, when the country was being attacked a year ago the people showed not only that they could take it but that they could respond to an attack of that kind. We believe that now there is a feeling of disquiet in the nation. We ought not to resent it. If we resent it we are doing a disservice to our cause, because the disquiet arises from a desire to do more and to play a bigger part. Our job is not to resent that disquiet but to canalise it into action. People will expect that after the reconstruction of the Government and after this debate there will come from the Government new policies and new methods, a setting-aside of all vested interests, a mobilising of the resources of the country, an organising of the manpower of the country, and if the Government gives a call for action which is represented by positive action by the Government itself I believe I can say for the House and the country that such a call will meet with a full response from the people of these islands.